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Historic National Road Celebrates 200th Anniversary

Fri July 21, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Ann Ali



WHEELING, WV (AP) The road that Wheeling residents still travel when they “go out the Pike” has deep historical ties to the entire country.

National Road — also known as the National Pike — is celebrating its 200th anniversary.

With the advent of the Model-T in the 1920s, two-lane U.S. 40 was built and for the most part followed the course of the original National Road.

U.S. 40 was rendered obsolete for long-distance east-west travel by Interstate 70, which was built nearby on a parallel track in the 1960s and 1970s.

President Thomas Jefferson authorized the National Road in 1806 to connect the country’s East (Atlantic Ocean) to its West (Ohio River) and minimize the natural barriers of mountains and rivers.

Later the road was extended through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and there were plans to build it all the way west to St. Louis, but funding ran out in 1839.

“Its story and the fight and struggle that went on to get it built and to get it built where it was really says a lot about the early history of our country,” said Dan Bonenberger, president of the National Road Alliance of West Virginia Inc. “The fact that there wasn’t another one for 100 years is really a part of the country’s story.”

In the early 19th century, Wheeling, with its location along the Ohio River, was an important transportation hub.

Residents willingly gave up land without compensation or eminent domain for construction of the road and contracts were given to local men, who built the road a few miles at a time.

Congress had specific guidelines for construction.

The road had to be the shortest distance possible between planned points and it could not exceed an 8.75 percent grade through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Modern interstate highways are allowed a 7 percent grade.

The first 10 mi. were constructed in 1811 west from Cumberland to Frostburg.

In 1818, the National Road from Cumberland to Wheeling was completed with a stone, gravel and sand surface.

Many of the old mile markers and several of the unusual S-bridges remain.

In all, there were 15.7 mi. of the National Road in that part of Virginia, which would later become West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle.

With only one practical way to go from east to west, Wheeling’s population boomed and many taverns and inns sprang up to accommodate travelers.

“It’s not as important now as it was 150 or 200 years ago when they didn’t have a choice,” said Travis Zeik, chief curator of the Museums of Oglebay Institute, home to a National Road exhibit through October.

However, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which reached Wheeling in 1852, signaled the end of the National Road’s heyday.

The relatively fast, comfortable trains left carriages and ox-drawn wagons in the dust.

Then, in 1927, the National Road got new life as U.S. 40. Inns and taverns gave way to motels and gas stations, which offered new ways to serve new travelers.

Still, the National Road never recovered the allure it had when it teamed with Conestoga wagons and stagecoaches.

Bonenberger said the marketing of Route 66 took a lot of attention away from National Road.

National Road took another hit when the Federal Highway Act of 1956 created interstates, which were much faster and easier to travel than the scenic route.

Indeed, there’s lot of interesting scenery for motorists to take in along the old road.

“The West Virginia section of the National Road is considered to have the most concentrated area of intact architecture from a variety of periods,” said Deb Keddi, consultant of the National Road Alliance. “You get a picture of a wide range of American architecture in a very concentrated area.”

Lined with small businesses and imposing homes and buildings, National Road is still important to Wheeling, both as a tourist attraction and as a convenient way to get through town.

Also adjoining the road is Monument Place, once known as the Shepherd Mansion. It was built in 1798 by Colonel Moses Shepherd. He and his wife, Lydia, were close friends of Henry Clay, who pushed the road authorization through Congress.

At the entrance to Wheeling Park is a “Madonna of the Trail” monument, one of 12 such statues along roadsides across the nation commemorating the spirit of pioneer women. The statue depicts a woman holding two small children and a rifle. They were erected in the late 1920s as a project of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

People today are still traveling the National Road across the magnificent Wheeling Suspension Bridge, with massive stone towers rising up from bed of the Ohio River just as they did when the bridge opened in 1849.

Groups such as the National Road Alliance are concerned with preserving, promoting and protecting the National Road.

“The idea for the National Road came from a large group of founding fathers who wanted to wed the East to the West and maintain a relationship,” said Bonenberger. “So like a wedding ring, with this road, finally there was a solid connection across the mountains to tie the western states to the East.”